Question: Is it preferable to pray at great length or with much brevity?
Answer: The Talmud (Berachot 34a) appears to extol both brief and lengthy prayers. It notes that one student once led an excessively long prayer service. When other students complained, R. Eliezer responded that the student had not prayed any longer than Moshe Rabbenu who prayed for 40 days and forty nights.
Subsequently, another student led a prayer service that was excessively brief. This time the students of the beit hamidrash complained about the brevity of the service. R. Eliezer again defended the student leading the service by stating that he didn’t pray any quicker than Moshe Rabbenu whose entire prayer on behalf of his sister Miriam consisted of five words: “O Hashem, please heal her.”
So what’s better: lengthy or brief prayers?
Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik presented the following theory.
Prayer has two distinct components. One form of prayer is based on Devarim 3:23, “Va’et’chanan el Hashem – I implored Hashem.” The essence of this form of prayer is a request for matnat chinam, a free gift. Should Hashem respond affirmatively to our prayer, He would be giving us something we neither merit nor deserve. A prayer of this sort on behalf of an individual must be brief. When seeking a favor, one should not pray at great length.
On the other hand, when praying on behalf of the community, one’s prayers may be lengthy. This type of prayer is based on the covenant Hashem made with the Jewish people to sustain and protect them. As the result of this covenant, the Jewish people merit divine benevolence and special treatment. We are not asking for a favor per se.
Thus, prayers for an individual should preferably be short, and prayers for the community should preferably be long.
(Based on a shiur by Rav Soloveitchik on Berachot 30b)
About the Author: Rabbi Cohen, a Jerusalem Prize recipient, is the author of eight sefarim on Jewish law. His latest, “Jewish Prayer the Right Way” (Urim Publications), is available at Amazon.com and select Judaica stores.
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